Walking State Street, Before and After COVID-19

Only Three Weeks Apart, Two Very Different Experiences

A view of an empty State Street | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

David Starkey is a professor of English at Santa Barbara City College, where he directs the creative writing program. In February, back before the coronavirus took hold of the country, he pitched the idea of walking the entire length of State Street and writing about the experience. He did so on March 6, but before the piece could be published, California went on lockdown. Starkey took another trip down State on March 28, and this is what he saw.

March 6

A little before 9:30 on Friday morning, my Uber driver drops me off at the corner of Modoc and Hollister, next to the U-Haul place and across from Santa Barbara Cryotherapy. This summer I will have lived in Santa Barbara for 20 years, but I’ve only ever walked bits and pieces of State Street. Today, I plan to walk it all.

Google Maps has Hollister and State overlapping for several hundred yards, but Bing locates the beginning of State Street right at the entrance to Milpas Rental, the first of a long line of small businesses lining the southern side of the street. Poetically speaking, though, I would argue that State Street really begins in front of Harder RV Storage, where the pavement changes color, like two rivers from very different sources meeting, and a median with wildflowers and pepper trees sprouts up between the east and westbound traffic.

The morning fog has burned off, leaving a blue sky crisscrossed by jet contrails. There’s a light breeze, and the air smells of jasmine.

March 28

Despite Governor Newsom’s shelter-at-home order, I want to see what’s happened to State Street in the 22 days since COVID-19 upended America. While another walk would be nice, I have a lot of online work due today, so I ask my youngest daughter, a freshman at NYU who is home for the remainder of the semester, to drive me while I take notes. Surprisingly, she agrees.

On this initial stretch of road, at least, not much seems to have changed since my walk. Apparently auto repair shops are “essential”: most of them are open for business. The sky is just as blue.

March 6

Just before State Street crosses the freeway, next to a well-worn path leading down into the bushes and trees, a stenciled sign reads “No Camping.”

On the overpass, I pause for a moment to feel the confluence of cars — State Street traffic going east and west, the 101 traffic zooming north and south — but the guardrail is low and I am tall, and I have to catch myself against the sudden vertigo.

March 28

If anything, the Five Points shopping center, with its CVS and a Smart & Final, has more cars than three weeks ago. The lots in front of Whole Foods and Gelson’s are equally full. In fact, here on upper State, any place selling food seems to be open, if only for take-out: Jack in the Box, Chick-fil-A, Jeanine’s, the Sunshine Café.

    Three weeks ago, I was often the only pedestrian in sight, but now the sidewalks are, if not full, at least far from empty.

A view of an empty State Street

March 6

Outside the U.S. Army Recruitment building, a man sits slumped in a wheelchair, plastic bags hanging from its handles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being go in or out of that building. Is it still in use? If not, why is it still there?

I push eastward, past a nail salon, a massage parlor, a funeral home, a tavern, a pawnshop. At Calle Crespis, State Street makes a pronounced bend to the southeast, and the neighborhood takes on a different character — pastel-painted apartments with a 1960s flavor replace most of the businesses, though there is a cluster of three motels within a block of Alamar.

Past Constance, the median returns — lantana and agave and palm trees — and it’s mostly houses for the next six blocks. Through the foliage, I catch glimpses of front yards: birdbaths, fountains, porch swings. One house has “Circa 1922” on a plaque, and the neighborhood definitely feels of that era, when this part of State Street would have been near the edge of town.

At Mission, I stop at Garrett’s Old Fashioned for a late breakfast, then head for Trinity Episcopal Church, which, as always, looks as though it were plucked out of a small English town and plopped down in Southern California. The big wooden doors are unlocked, and I walk inside. The church is empty. It smells of stone and age. Sun shining through the clerestory windows spotlights motes of dust.

March 28

Garrett’s is open for take-out only. The church is locked up tight.

March 6

At the bus stop opposite the Bankruptcy Court, a shirtless man jumps up and down, talking partly to himself and partly to some invisible being in front of him. I weave around him, then I’m across from the Arlington and the Christian Science Reading Room, and crossing Victoria, where the sidewalk becomes red brick instead of concrete. People sit outside eating. Small white lights are wrapped around the trees.

March 28

Perhaps because it is under closer scrutiny, this part of State Street seems more fully closed down than it was further west. A woman sits at the corner of Carrillo with a cardboard sign in her lap that says, “Anything Helps.”

Where can you find a party in this town? Certainly not in the normally bustling stretch of bars and restaurants between Cota and Gutierrez. Baja Sharkeez looks particularly forlorn.

March 6

State Street dips under the freeway, then, beyond the railroad tracks, everything is so whitewashed and new! There’s MOXI — such a startling contrast to the dear old Museum of Natural History — and the Hotel Indigo and the Hotel Californian and — I do a double-take over my shoulder — can it really be another McConnell’s? Then the fancy new stone bridge over Mission Creek, where a lone coot paddles in aimless circles.

This is clearly the end of State Street; however, just as it felt wrong not to start my journey back on Modoc, it feels wrong not to push out onto Stearns Wharf. The breeze picks up, turning cooler. I pass Bud Bottoms’s iconic Dolphin Fountain, then I’m on the wharf, the salt smell of the sea mixing with the tar smell of wood.

March 28

Other than the absence of a parking attendant, this could be any Saturday morning on the Wharf. Yes, the main restaurants are closed, but there’s plenty of foot traffic. The ice cream store is open — apparently, as I’ve long suspected, ice cream is essential to life — and people sit around enjoying the sun, many of them emphatically not practicing social distancing. “Can we go now?” my daughter asks. “Seen enough?”

March 6

Then I’m there, finally: the end of the road. The cry of gulls, a trawler chugging toward the harbor. A distant fog shrouds the Channel Islands. I grasp the sun-warmed wood of the railing and hold it for a few moments before turning, reluctantly, for home.


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